Appreciate what Patrick achieved
If Danica Patrick is indeed driving in her last races, if she really is taking her considerable talents into other business ventures, she will leave NASCAR as she entered it, a figure surrounded by controversy and derision, but also hope and aspiration.
Some will choose to focus on an obvious statistic: She has never won a NASCAR race in 180 career Cup starts over five-plus years as a full-time driver.
I will choose to focus on this: Someday, when NASCAR has overcome its alarming lack of diversity, and a woman wins a race, and another wins one, and another, they all will thank the same person for paving the way. Danica Patrick.
By all accounts, including her own, the 35-year-old Patrick has struggled this year, ranking 28th in the standings. That sounds not so great. But consider this:
What if the top woman in golf or tennis ranked 28th on the men’s tour? Can you imagine? How jaw-dropping would that be?
Or how about this: what if the 28th best player in Major League Baseball or the NFL or NBA or NHL was a woman? The physical demands of these various sports are different from the demands of driving a race car, of course, but have we ever really considered just how impressive Patrick’s performances have been, even in a bad year?
Her detractors, so shortsighted and rooted in another time, continually focus on what she hasn’t accomplished.
They have it all wrong. We should be looking at what she has accomplished.
She is the only woman to have won an IndyCar race, the Japan 300 in 2008. Her third-place finish in the 2009 Indianapolis 500 is the best ever by a woman in that iconic race. She is the only woman to have won a pole in NASCAR’s Cup series, and it was a big one: the 2013 Daytona 500, where she finished eighth.
I happen to know several young female athletes who turned on a NASCAR race for the first time that day, their sole purpose to cheer her on.
It’s only natural to mark Patrick’s place in sports history first and foremost by gender. But because of Patrick’s considerable talent, there’s more to this story. She was a successful, incredibly popular driver who happened to be a woman. She was good enough to belong and compete, year after year. This wasn’t an act of charity or sympathy. She deserved to be right where she was.
Patrick’s likely departure leaves only two non-white males as regular Cup drivers, Kyle Larson, an Asian American, and Daniel Suarez, who is from Mexico. No other women. No African Americans. NASCAR, what in the world is up with that? This is a failure of massive proportions and should be unacceptable to every one of your sponsors.
At least one of Patrick’s competitors understands what it appears so many others do not. After hearing the news that Patrick would not be returning to her team for 2018, Brad Keselowski tweeted his praise for her, generating criticism from the usual suspects on Twitter.
He fired back, writing: “Have come to accept that mankind never knows or appreciates what it has until it’s gone. NASCAR fans will miss her badly in time.”
If Patrick is finished racing, we will remember her as such a confident, strong presence, so visible and so interesting, especially for young girls to see.
You don’t have to know a thing about auto racing to know we all were better off because she was there.
Danica Patrick is the only woman to have won a NASCAR Cup pole.